Turning Point: Cracking My Family's Mysteries A cancer diagnosis pushes a journalist to probe into her mother's past. What she learns changes the dynamics of their relationship as well as her vision of her mother.
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Turning Point: Cracking My Family's Mysteries

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Turning Point: Cracking My Family's Mysteries

Turning Point: Cracking My Family's Mysteries

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This is DAY TO DAY, from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. In 20 years as a television journalist, Carol Lin got used to stories with bad endings: wars, depravation, disease.

CHADWICK: You've probably seen her on CNN; Carol was an anchor there. But nothing really prepared for this news. Her mom has cancer.

BRAND: That was months ago. There have been many changes since then and lessons worth sharing. Carol agreed to tell her story for Day to Day.

Mrs. HSI CHUAN CHEN (Carol Lin's Mother): I never thought I could reach 80. I really never thought it.

CAROL LIN: This is my 80-year-old mother, Joanne. She's a petite Chinese woman who stands 5 feet tall. She's sweet but stubborn, a whirling dervish who's not comfortable sitting still.

(Soundbite of singing "Happy Birthday")

Ms. CHEN: And she drives me crazy.

LIN: Thank you. Thank you all.

LIN: Part of it is our cultural differences. She's Chinese; I'm her American daughter. But also I feel like this fiercely protective woman has been chasing me my whole life.

Do you remember when you had me paged at McDonald's when I was 17 years old?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHEN: Yes. Yes.

LIN: I mean, you ran red lights, you would knock on people's doors, you would track me down at Shakey's Pizza Parlor (ph) or McDonald's.

Ms. CHEN: Well, when I woke up, you were not home. I was horrified. I was horrified. So I woke up your dad and said, let's go find Carol.

LIN: What were you so worried about, though? What possibly could have happened to me?

Ms. CHEN: Anything could happen.

LIN: Trust me, things aren't any different now that I'm an adult who's traveled the world. I'm raising a child, but my mom would still say it's her job to take care of me. She says I don't have enough hand towels at my house.

Ms. CHEN: Washing hand, there's no towel there.

LIN: Mom, there are towels there.

When she comes over to visit, she's even been known to bring her own sheets and pillows, pots and pans. I want her to see me as a grown-up. But she treats me like a child. Then suddenly, things change.

Unidentified Woman # 1: OK, your temperature's good, 97.0.

Dr. JOHN TIMMERMAN (Lymphoma Specialist, UCLA): So the bad news was that the biopsy confirmed that the cancer is now back.

Ms. CHEN: Yeah. Yeah. It is.

Dr. TIMMERMAN: Much sooner than we had hoped.

LIN: Dr. John Timmerman is her lymphoma specialist at UCLA. Five attempts at aggressive radiation and chemotherapy haven't stopped the cancer from coming back.

Dr. TIMMERMAN: I'm sad because I really wanted this to last longer.

Ms. CHEN: Yeah.

Dr. TIMMERMAN: I'm satisfied, though, that we tried really hard. You had a great attitude. What would you like to do?

Ms. CHEN: I'm happy when I'm living. If I can live two more years, I will be very happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIN: A few minutes later, I grab a private moment with the doctor.

How should we think about time?

Dr. TIMMERMAN: Well, she said two years that she would like. I think that's pretty optimistic. So I think we're looking at something more realistically at a year or less, but I hope I'm wrong.

LIN: My mother is unusually calm about this horrible diagnosis.

Ms. CHEN: I think this is part of my fate. You know, and I believe that whatever God arranged for me, then I will take it.

LIN: There was only one other time that I saw my mom with this kind of clarity. It was when my husband, Will, died unexpectedly of a rare cancer. Our daughter was just a baby, only 10 weeks old.

Ms. CHEN: I told God I cannot die now because my daughter needs my help. I need to help her to go through this difficult period and see what I can help out Chloe (ph). And that's why I said I will be grateful if I can live to see Chloe at 5.

LIN: But you know, I didn't want her help. I sort of blamed her for Will's death. Her constant worry was like an ancient Chinese curse. I thought her haunting fears had infected my life and might somehow taint my daughter. When I was holding the baby she said, Carol, the baby's too cold. Put on a sweater. That's when I snapped. My words were angry and cruel. I've really regretted that day. I want to understand why she is so critical of me, and so fearful.

Ms. CHEN: What are you doing, sweetheart? Huh? What are you doing with this?

LIN: I'm recording you.

Ms. CHEN: Oh, recording me!

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIN: Maybe the answer lies in her past, something she refused to share with me before the cancer.

Ms. CHEN: My family was pretty well off at that time...

LIN: I had no idea that my mother's mother was an illiterate farm girl married off to an older, wealthy widower with servants and slave girls.

Ms. CHEN: There was a room for bathing. A servant had to heat that water and carry it to her.

LIN: At first I was listening to her describe her idyllic childhood, but then I learn her father died unexpectedly. My grandmother becomes a young widow, and the family is plunged into poverty. I realized that was the beginning of crisis after crisis for my mom. My mom fled with her classmates to the hills during the Japanese war. When she dared to go home, she hid under the floorboards of her house to keep from being raped by marauding soldiers.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Unidentified Man: Trouble in Manchuria. Famine conditions. These and other problems are facing...

LIN: By 1949, China was exploding and my mom was among the last wave of people to get out before the communists took over. She must have been so scared. She was only 22 years old.

Ms. CHEN: That was my saddest memory in my life. Leaving my country. Leaving my family. At that time, I never thought that I would see them again because it just so uncertain that we didn't change.

LIN: Why didn't she tell me these things while I was growing up? My mom and I spent months talking.

Ms. CHEN: OK. Now I put the egg in, in the fried rice.

LIN: You always seem more comfortable in the kitchen than anywhere else.

Ms. CHEN: Do I?

LIN: Yeah.

Ms. CHEN: I don't know. My husband taught me how to cook after we got married.

LIN: Daddy taught you how to cook?

Ms. CHEN: Yeah. Because you...

LIN: Huh.

Unidentified Woman # 2: You used to cook a lot?

LIN: I don't know, this is news to me.

Ms. CHEN: He does not cook a lot but he know better than - because I never cook. I told Carol I cook lettuce. I thought it was a cabbage.

LIN: We even talked about my career.

Ms. CHEN: I would expect you to become nurse, but in the...

LIN: Do you remember when you said - my news director Jose, you said, who expected Carol would be so successful? Do you remember that?

Ms. CHEN: Yeah, that's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHEN: Because I would never believe you would go into television.

LIN: What did you mean by that? I was so shocked when you said that.

Ms. CHEN: Well, you're so competitive, I would never think that you could find a job.

LIN: What, did that have something to do with your confidence in me?

Ms. CHEN: I don't know.

LIN: No. I think you're protective.

As I learn my mom's story I understand that the odds of her own success were always against her. That makes it easier for me to stop feeling so criticized, and I finally ask for her advice. What do you want to teach me, your daughter, about the example that you're setting in this fight against your cancer?

Ms. CHEN: Courage. It's courage to know that there is always something possible. That you don't think anything is impossible.

LIN: She still touches a nerve when she buys me hand towels and comments on how I'm raising Chloe. But her love and respect have always been there. She's just dished it out in ways I couldn't always hear.

Ms. CHEN: OK, honey. Dinner's ready.

LIN: Thanks, mom.

For NPR News, I'm Carol Lin.

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